Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 puts fledgling Chinese media in spotlight

The performance of the domestic press has fallen short of expectations, says Hong Bing

April 17, 2014

After working in Fudan University’s School of Journalism for 20 years, this will be the first semester I’m not teaching undergraduates. This is not a sabbatical; it is simply because junior students are spending their first two years in other departments as part of a new structure introduced last year.

I am quite sure that the story about Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 will be one of the students’ tough questions for me next semester, and I need to be well prepared.

The nature of the tragedy is obviously “disappearance” and a lack of key information and witnesses. Nevertheless, compared with international media outlets, the performance of the Chinese media has fallen short of expectations considering that 154 Chinese nationals were on board.

According to an editorial in the official China Daily, the MH370 story “is just one example of how deficient the Chinese media are. Chinese media outlets seem to lag behind their Western counterparts, especially when it comes to timely coverage of big global events.”

The editorial even quoted a netizen’s comment: “To our domestic media: can you do anything other than lighting candles?” This is a reference to the fact that the Chinese mainstream media often just recycle stories from international media, so their social media accounts were frequently filled with the image of candles lit in vigils for the missing passengers.

Against the backdrop of China’s economic growth and the international expansion of the media, the MH370 story reveals that Chinese international journalism is still a fledgling. As a result, Chinese audiences often turn to foreign media: Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and CNN are cited as credible sources by the public and journalists. This is a little curious as CNN was the target of Chinese criticism for supposedly biased coverage before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and a recent Chicago Tribune opinion piece described US television news coverage of the MH370 story as descending into “unintentional self-parody” – citing a CNN anchor who strutted around a digital map as he advanced the theory that flight MH370 went “into stealth mode by flying in the radar shadow of another jet”.

As China has become more intensively involved in globalisation, the hunger for serious and quality international journalism has grown. Recently in an informal meeting with reporters and scholars, including those from countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, I encountered key questions about the Chinese media, such as “why do you often find contradictory messages in the same story?”

The probable explanation is the expectation that Chinese foreign news must serve not only the needs of its own citizens, but also interpret professionally for the international community. To achieve that, China faces a painstaking process of accumulating more experience, networking and developing expertise.

When my students return to journalism next semester, not only will I raise some criticisms of the Chinese coverage of the MH370 story, I will also explain why we might not want to rely too heavily on international coverage, given stories such as The Wall Street Journal piece on how transmissions from flight MH370’s Rolls-Royce engines showed that the aircraft carried on flying for four hours after the last radio contact. The newspaper later conceded its claims about the data coming from the engines were incorrect.

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